This guest post was written by Ankita Kulkarni.
“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination and the journey. They are home.” ― Anna Quindlen, in How Reading Changed My Life (1998).
One book can change your life. One single book can take you on a journey of a lifetime. It can make you feel elated, sad, scared, angry, horrified, awed or courageous. It can help you escape reality and transport you into a world of imagination. You can travel to different places - experiencing the wonders of that land through the writer’s words - while comfortably sitting in your favourite reading chair. As Anna Quindlen says, books are the journey, yet they are the destination too.
The golden rule for any travel writer (or writer in general!) is that the more you read, the better you can write. Reading another travel writer’s works will help you gain a better sense of their writing style, the way they describe the place, their narrative style.
Is it a memoir or is it just about the journey?
Do they add a personal touch to their story or do they keep it purely subjective?
How do they manage to take their readers along with them on the journey through their words and descriptions?
These questions can and must always plague a travel writer while reading, as it leads them to ask those questions of themselves. A simple solution to these questions is to read, read, and read more!
When I decided to write my first travel piece about my trip to the beautiful Himalayas in India, I was at a loss. There were a lot of things I wished to describe in my piece, but where to begin? This was when my friend suggested I read a couple of wonderful books written by various talented travel writers. I compared their opening styles, made notes on their narrative techniques, the sorts of details they included (or even excluded) in their writing. Did they start with the destination itself and then do a flashback of the journey or did they begin with the journey itself?
Reading a variety of travel books can help us discover our own writing style. It can help open our minds to more creative possibilities within writing. You might pick up a narrative technique from one book and combine it with the structured storyline from another and create your own masterpiece. Or you may decide to choose the free-flowing form of writing from one book and combine it with a fictionalised storyline.
Whatever you choose to do, reading plays a major role in compelling you to think and rethink about your own work. It coaxes your mind to come up with ideas by opening the doors of your creativity.
Here are the top five recommended travel reads for travel writers (as well as enthused, voracious travel readers):
1. The Lightless Sky, by Gulwali Passarlay
The Lightless Sky is a heart-wrenching memoir of a young Afghani refugee, who was forced to flee his homeland with his brother to escape the tyranny of the Taliban and the US Army. Gulwali recounts his escape journey from Afghanistan, as he bounced from one smuggling agent to another through Iran, Turkey, Istanbul, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, France and finally to the safety of the United Kingdom.
This book is a combination of memoir and travel accounts. It describes the worst conditions that a refugee has to go through in order to reach safety and seek asylum in another country. Written from his first-person narrative perspective, Gulwali describes crossing international borders secretly on foot, on a horse, in a bus, as well as on a ship. He recollects being passed on from one smuggling agent to another and being forced to live in horrible, filthy accommodations with no food or water for days on end.
This is not a mainstream travel novel describing the tourist spots, luxurious hotels or gourmet food; it is a heart-rending, honest account of a twelve-year-old who went through nine different countries in a year. He never had the chance to explore these countries as he hid from the authorities and survived in the filthiest conditions.
A must read for all aspiring travel writers, The Lightless Sky brilliantly combines Gulwali’s personal story and struggles with the detailed description of his troublesome journey.
2. Down The Nile, by Rosemary Mahoney
Down The Nile is a wonderful take on solo traveling. Again a memoir written by Mahoney herself, it is an inspiring story of a woman who dreamt of rowing down the Nile alone in a small boat.
This story discovers the actual struggles of a foreign woman trying to make her way in a country run by deeply-ingrained cultural beliefs; she comes across many shocking encounters with men who are unwilling to lend their boats to a woman who wishes to travel alone. After these initial difficulties in getting the boat, then comes the actual struggles of rowing through the treacherous river currents while dodging the dangerous crocodiles.
Mahoney’s courage and pluckiness are truly an inspiration to all those who have a dream. Having a dream is important; you can find a way to fulfill it if you are determined enough to follow it. Mahoney also weaves in interesting details of the early travels to the Nile by Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert. Overall, Down The Nile is a truly inspirational read for all travel lovers.
3. Slow Train to Switzerland, by Diccon Bewes
Very few people know that Thomas Cook was the first person who introduced ‘organizsed group travels’ with his first conducted tour of Switzerland in 1863. The travel industry as we know today began with this first-ever organised tour of a special group called the Junior United Alpine Club. Every fine detail of this first international tour to Switzerland was recorded by Miss Jemima Morrell, who was accompanied by her brother William Morrell. This journal describes every detail of their journey from 1863.
Diccon Bewes, in Slow Train to Switzerland, tries to recreate the steps of this journey from London to Bellegarde and so on, to understand how traveling methods and facilities have changed over the last 150 years. Where the Junior United Alpine Club might have traveled by a slow train - taking them more than six to seven hours - Diccon manages to get there in less than two. He truly brings out the distinguished experiences of traveling in 19th-century versus traveling the exact same route in the 21st century.
Slow Train to Switzerland presents a truly astonishing comparative journey, as we get to experience travel with Miss Jemima, as well as Diccon, in two completely different worlds. A very historically-intriguing tale, well expressed by a brilliant writer.
4. Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple
Nine Lives is a fascinating collection of short stories about nine Indians: a Buddhist monk; a Jain Nun; a classical dancer from Kerala who is also a jail warden; a Devdasi (a woman who is God’s slave); a Rajasthani singer; a Muslim woman; an idol maker from Tamil Nadu; a woman who worships black magic; and Baul singers from West Bengal.
This book takes you to every nook and corner of India, showcasing its rich diversity and religious culture and discovering the roots of all these traditions and classical arts. India is a religiously diverse country with more than ten different religions, each with its own rich traditions and culture. William Dalrymple tries to bring out the essence of these religious traditions through nine incredible stories of nine lives - or nine people - from various corners of the country, who have been through terrible ordeals in their lifetime and have now some very important life lessons to impart. Some of them are the last remaining bearers of a long lost art/tradition.
Throughout Nine Lives, Dalrymple brings out the unseen, yet deeply embedded roots of India and showcases them as being the true wealth of this country.
5. The Last Banana, by Shelby Tucker
The Last Banana is a beautifully-written story of author Shelby Tucker’s sixteen different trips to Africa over 43 years. As told in this story, the author chose to travel by different means of transportation, the first time by the sea in 1967, then by land in 1972.
The premise lies in Tucker’s visits to his university friend Marios Ghikas, a Greek farmer in Tanzania; this book closely observes the intertwining relationships of the author and the Greek, who had long ago settled in eastern Africa when it was still under German rule. Marios invites Tucker back to Africa to spend his ‘last banana’, as he predicted politician Nyerere’s policy to return the farming land to the rightful owners, the Watu, or the folk of the community.
The Last Banana explores the history of colonisation in Africa, the introduction of Christianity, slavery, and the nationalisation that destroyed the community. This is a truly enthralling and historically-rich book, written by an author descended from slave owners himself.
We’d like to thank Ankita for her wonderful guest series all about different aspect of travel writing here on The Writer’s Nook!
Ankita Kulkarni is an aspiring writer, currently pursuing an M.A. in Creative Writing from Loughborough University, U.K. She completed her B.A. in English Literature from Pune University, India. She is interested in blogging (any genre), travel writing, and horror fiction writing, and has previously published articles in both a dance magazine and a mental health magazine in India. She is a classical dancer, a certified swim trainer, a baker and, of course, a voracious reader. She has her own blog website that you can find here at https://writingblossoms.home.blog/